Necessary skills and courage for sustainability leadership

Repairing a sinking ship

Prof. Ralph Hamann of the UCT GSB discusses the importance of sustainability in business
Ralph Hamann.JPG


Civilisation has found itself in a place where volatility is the new normal. Historic droughts exist alongside historic floods, the global food system is failing one out of every seven people, and financial markets continue to teeter on the brink of disaster.

Government, business and sustainability professionals agree that the facts are undeniable: if we don’t solve our financial, water, food, energy, climate change, and social inequality crises soon, it is unlikely that the planet will be able to meet the needs of the forecast population of 9.5 billion people in 2050.

According to Research Director at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, Prof Ralph Hamann, South Africa is in many ways a microcosm of these global challenges and while there are already important responses by government and business leaders, much more systemic and committed responses will be necessary.

A sensing capability

Firstly, Hamann believes that leaders must seek to become aware of the systemic relationship between themselves as an individual, the organisation they are in, and the context in which it operates.

“What are the trends and trajectories of the system? Leaders will need to understand that those trajectories are not predictable straight lines, but that there are likely to be tipping points that can change things radically,” says Hamann.

Leaders need to gain an appreciation of the interconnection between the interests of their organisation with that social-ecological system, as well as the interest of others within that system.”


But it is no easy task to sense the systemic embeddedness of organizations and to act on this premise in the context of a competitive market and government rules that are not always supportive. To embark on this journey, Hamann says that leaders need to be prepared to make bolder judgments and stick their necks out.

We are starting to see courage like this amongst some business leaders, who are acknowledging that the current system isn’t working and that there is a need for a fundamental shift in business operations and in the rules of the game. Some business leaders are revolutionizing the way we think about business, like Patagonia’s Sheahan who tells consumers not to buy the company’s jacket (unless they really need it). Others, like Unilever’s Polman, are mobilizing a broader, collective effort among companies and asking for changed rules in areas like climate change.”

Cross-sector collaboration

But to address wicked problems of climate change and inequality, leaders need to go even further – and reach out across sectors.

Dr Glenda Raven of World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa(WWF-SA) says that collaboration is key: “Collaboration across the private, public, and social sectors that draw on the skills of multiple stakeholders is going to be vital in confronting the world’s challenges in the decades ahead.

Raven argues that there is no reason why collective differences cannot be put aside in order to unleash the kinetic energy of cross-nation, and cross-sector collaboration, to pursue common interests.

Despite the fact that corporates, government and NGOs have different natures and different baselines of operation, there is need for them to be brought together. We need to create processes that align agendas that have typically been at odds,” says Raven.

This thinking is at the core of a new partnership between the UCT Graduate School of Business and WWF-South Africa, who are collaborating to offer a new executive education programme: the One Planet Leaders in Africa programme, which aims to bring together sustainability leaders from across sectors and give them new energy and skills to tackle complex social-ecological problems.

Partnering is a complex business without a one-size-fits-all model. There are many partnership types and they exist on different scales and take different forms. However, the one thing they have in common is the expectation that the participants can achieve their objectives more effectively and efficiently through strategic alliances with others than by acting independently,” says Hamann.

Raven agrees, and says that effective cross-sector partnerships require commitment and new forms of leadership, a collaborative mindset and strong relationship management – through which real impact can be achieved.

Beyond the tree hugging

What all sectors have in common is a resistance to change, but if we hope to change the status quo, leaders need to accept that change is necessary, can even be beneficial, and move forward,” believes Raven.

This acceptance is growing, and can be seen for example by the conversations at the World Economic Forum, where social-ecological risks are being identified by leaders of business and government as key risks to organisations and economies.

This shift is evident in business school research as well. Recent research from the Association of MBAs, for example, shows that students are increasingly aware that a good grasp of social-ecological concerns is of primary importance to their roles as leaders. And classroom discussion at the UCT Graduate School of Business showed that over half of the full-time MBA students chose the GSB at least in part because of its growing emphasis on social innovation and sustainability. Hamann says this would have been unthinkable five years ago.

The social-ecological imperative has moved from being a tangential concern that people have previously been able to write off as a tree hugging exercise, to one that is at the core of how organisations are operating and the trajectories they’re facing. Unless leaders step up and take responsibility for the way they and their organisations operate within this volatility, chances of fixing are breaking ship are diminished,” he concludes.

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